A.N. WILSON: Are the young becoming more stupid? Sadly, the answer is Yes

Are we becoming more stupid? The answer, sadly, is ‘yes’ according to new research.

In one of the most authoritative studies of its kind, scientists have found the IQ of young people has begun to fall, after rising steadily since the war. The decline started with the generation that reached adulthood in the Nineties, and has continued ever since.

Those who have been watching the moronic TV dating show Love Island will need little convincing that the young are less clever than they were.

Last week, one of the contestants, 22-year-old Hayley Hughes, shamelessly revealed her ignorance.

‘What do you think about Brexit?’ she was asked by a fellow contestant.

‘What’s that?’ she replied.

‘When we’re leaving the European Union,’ came the answer.

‘I seriously don’t have a clue what that is,’ she said.

Maybe it is asking a lot of the dunderheads on the show to have mastered the intricacies of Brexit. But one would hope they might at least have grasped the basics — Hayley, after all, has three A-levels.

Scientists have found the IQ of young people has begun to fall, after rising steadily since the war (stock image)


The legitimacy of IQ tests as a measure of intelligence has been questioned since they were developed by the French psychologist Alfred Binet in the early 1900s to identify students who might struggle at school. Binet warned of the tests’ limitations where creativity or emotional intelligence was concerned, although now, more than 100 years on, they have been refined and adapted, and are used by educationalists and scientists worldwide.

There is also, of course, the fact that you can define the word ‘clever’ in many ways.

It is easy for middle-aged people such as myself, who have been educated in one particular way, to disparage younger brains educated in another, and behave like old fools detecting ignorance and stupidity all around them.

What cannot be denied, however, is that it used to be assumed that every generation would become cleverer than its predecessor.

This was known as the Flynn effect, after the New Zealand researcher into intelligence, James Flynn, who, in 1984, proved that in each recent generation, intelligence had, in general, risen.

Now, new research demonstrates the trend has reversed. The question is, why?

One answer is down, it has to be said, to the lamentable failure of our state education system. Tragically, it is run by ideologues who abhor the notion of meritocracy and that there might be winners and losers. They’ve given up on discipline and intellectual rigour. Instead, they’ve adopted a child-centred philosophy, with a refusal to challenge pupils at its centre.

I remember when teachers were not there to read books on youngsters’ behalf; nor to tell them what to think. They were there to help pupils think, something entirely different.

A-levels, too, have been dumbed down.

A Loughborough University research project showed a grade B in Maths from the 2010s was equivalent to an E in the Sixties.

In 2016, more than a quarter of grades were A or A*, while in universities last year, 24 per cent were given Firsts, compared with 16 per cent five years earlier.

Syllabuses were also adapted to make things easier.

In history, for instance, a child is unlikely to learn more than a couple of ‘popular’ historical periods in their entire school career.

There is an obsessive emphasis on World War II and, occasionally, there will be a foray into the times of Henry VIII.

But ask a GCSE history pupil about the The Wars Of The Roses, Agincourt or Oliver Cromwell and you will be met with a total blank.

Compare this with the average schoolchild of two generations ago, who probably possessed a ruler with a list of all the Kings and Queens of England with their dates on the back, and who could put any historical event into some sort of overall picture.

To his credit, when Education Secretary, Michael Gove set out to stop the rot, introducing tougher GCSEs and A-levels. It was distressing to read this week that these tough new exams caused teenage candidates panic attacks.

But that is the price they have to pay if we are to stop our educational standards slipping relentlessly in global rankings — an OECD report in 2016, for instance, placed the UK 22nd out of 23 developed nations for numeracy.

Yet the fall in IQ cannot just be blamed on our state school system. A more pernicious factor undermining intelligence is our increasing reliance on computers.

We used to tell ourselves younger people may not know so much as older generations, but they had quicker wits and were brilliant with computers.

But herein lies the fundamental cause of the decline in modern intelligence.

Computers cannot think, but they can give us the illusion that they can do our thinking for us. How does a 14-year-old tackle an essay about the rainforests or the Holocaust?

Before the internet, they would have gone to a library and taken out a book. Their brain would have become fully engaged in composing that essay — scouring, sifting, absorbing pages of background information and processing it for relevant material.

Today’s student bypasses all the background material that places the subject in context. They simply Google ‘rainforest’ or ‘Holocaust’, then ‘cut and paste’ it into their essay.

Today’s student bypasses all the background material that places the subject in context (stock image)

Today’s student bypasses all the background material that places the subject in context (stock image)


Admittedly, some things, such as multiplication tables, cannot be downloaded, but increasingly teachers tolerate the use of calculators. Little wonder that research shows a diminishment of the capacity for basic mathematical reasoning — an ability which lies at the heart of much of our later intellectual development.

I witnessed this decline on that showcase of intelligence, the BBC TV quiz University Challenge. A few years ago I watched a final in which the truly brilliant leader of the winning team, Manchester University — an English Literature student — was flummoxed when asked about the odes of John Keats, who was until recently, possibly the best-known Romantic poet in the English language.

I cite this not to humiliate him — everyone has gaps in their knowledge — but to highlight the extent of the knowledge gap I am describing.

It’s often evident on University Challenge: young people with terrific scientific expertise suddenly showing ignorance of basic chemical elements; or those on history courses who are asked about past prime ministers or famous generals and who misplace the period they lived — not by a few decades, but by centuries.

What these howlers reveal is an inability to place bits of information into context — something that ought to be a vital function of intelligence.


You hear a quotation from a poet. You do not know who wrote it, but you feel by intelligent instinct roughly when and where it was written.

That same intelligent instinct would apply to a scientific or historical fact. If you give an answer which is wildly out, you show your intelligence is pitted with holes; that, in the tiresome phrase, you have not learned ‘joined-up thinking’.

In the Nineties and the Noughties, when computer technology for popular use advanced by leaps and bounds, it was felt the world was becoming not just better-informed but cleverer. But, as we look back, we see something different happened.

The very clever — such as the University Challenge contestants — will always be very clever, even though we can now see these ‘black holes’ in their knowledge, caused by computers.

The average students, however, are being damaged for life by over-reliance on computer-acquired information, and by simple addiction to their electronic gadgets, which drive out the much more intellectually stimulating activity of reading books.

Until we put a brake on our lazy computer addiction, the decline of the intellect will be relentless. The levels of ignorance seen on Love Island will become more and more commonplace as we bring up young people who do not have the capacity to think to judge — or to know anything at all.

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